Complementary & Alternative Medicines: What Are They? How Much Do They Cost?

In Australia, there’s been a noticeable shift towards alternative medicines, with more Aussies seeking holistic approaches to health and wellbeing. This trend reflects a growing desire to complement traditional Western medical practices with therapies that consider the whole person—body, mind, and spirit. 

From herbal remedies to acupuncture, Australians are exploring a diverse range of treatments, seeking more natural and personalised ways to maintain health. Meanwhile, Western medicine continues to play a crucial role, with its evidence-based treatments and advancements in medical technology.

The prevalence of Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) in Australia is quite significant with an estimated $3.5 billion spent on it yearly. Let’s take a closer look at CAMs and their cost in Australia.

What Is Complementary & Alternative Medicine?

Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) refers to a broad range of health care practices that are not part of a country’s own traditional or conventional medical system and are not fully integrated into the dominant health care system. 

The origin of alternative medicine can be traced back to ancient civilisations, including those in China, India, Egypt, and Greece, where holistic approaches to health were prevalent. In these cultures, health was often viewed as a balance between the body, mind, and environment, and treatments were aimed at restoring this balance through natural means.

Moreover, CAM practices such as herbal medicine and nutritional supplements can complement conventional treatments for chronic conditions. Complementary and Alternative Medicines are still lacking conclusive support or evidence. Therefore, it is advisable to consult your GP to learn more about this.

Types of Alternative Medicines

Types of complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs)
6 types of complementary and alternative treatments

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that has its roots in ancient Chinese medical practices, believed to be over 2,000 years old. It involves the insertion of very thin needles through the skin at specific points on the body, known as acupuncture points. The principle behind acupuncture is based on the traditional Chinese theory of qi (pronounced “chee”), a vital energy or life force that proponents of acupuncture believe flows through pathways in the body. According to this theory, blockages or imbalances in the flow of qi can lead to health issues. Acupuncture aims to restore the flow of qi and, thereby, improve health and wellbeing.

The practice is used to treat a wide range of conditions, from chronic pain, such as back pain and headaches, to digestive disorders, stress, anxiety, and even infertility. Although acupuncture is widely practised around the world and is recognised by various health organisations, its effectiveness is disputed by many scientists. There is no scientific evidence to show how acupuncture needles can ease pain or treat diseases. Additionally, evidence supporting its efficacy for the myriad issues it’s purposed to treat is virtually unknown.

Acupuncture remains a subject of ongoing research and debate in the scientific community. However, many people report relief from their symptoms through acupuncture. There are studies that suggest acupuncture effectiveness when used as a complementary therapy for palliative cares.

It is also important to know that acupuncture also has its side effects and risks, therefore In Australia, anyone referring to themselves as an acupuncturist must be registered with the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency, which seeks to ensure the practitioner is competent and adequately trained. Here are some known risks of acupuncture: 

  • Infection: The use of unsterilised needles can lead to infections. This risk underscores the importance of using pre-sterilised, single-use disposable needles to prevent the transmission of bloodborne diseases.
  • Injury: Incorrect needle insertion can cause injuries, including bleeding, bruising, and pain at the insertion sites. In rare instances, there’s a risk of puncturing internal organs if the needles are inserted too deeply​​.
  • Allergic Reactions: Some individuals may experience allergic reactions to the materials used in or during the acupuncture session, such as the herbs burned over the skin in some acupuncture treatments​​.
  • Unexpected Side Effects: Side effects such as an increase in pain, depression, convulsions, or insomnia can occur, given acupuncture’s significant effects on the nervous system. It is crucial that the correct points are stimulated in the right way to avoid these adverse outcomes​​.
  • Special Considerations for Certain Conditions: People with certain health conditions need to be cautious about undergoing acupuncture. Those with bleeding disorders or on blood thinners, lower immunity, certain types of cancer, a metal allergy, or heart disease may be at increased risk and should consult with a healthcare professional before considering acupuncture​​.
  • During Pregnancy: Acupuncture is generally considered to be suitable for a patient during pregnancy for managing conditions like morning sickness and pelvic pain. However, certain acupuncture points should be avoided during pregnancy, making it essential to seek treatment from a practitioner experienced in prenatal care​​.

Ayurveda

The term “Ayurveda” is derived from two Sanskrit words: ‘Ayur’, meaning life, and ‘Veda’, meaning science or knowledge. Thus, Ayurveda translates to the ‘science of life’. This traditional form of medicine is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit.

In Ayurveda, a Dosha represents one of three fundamental bodily energies believed to circulate within the body and govern physiological activity. These three Doshas—vata (air and space), pitta (fire and water), and kapha (earth and water)—are thought to uniquely combine within each individual, determining their physical and mental characteristics as well as their susceptibility to illness. Ayurvedic practices aim to balance these Doshas through diet, herbal treatments, and lifestyle adjustments, with the belief that maintaining this balance promotes health and wellbeing.

Ayurveda is promoted as a personalised approach to health, considering the individual’s constitution, emotional state, lifestyle, and physical health. It is used as a supplemental treatment for a wide range of conditions, from digestive issues to chronic diseases. 

However, Ayuverda does not have support within the  mainstream medical community. There is a significant challenge for Ayuverda in terms of universal acceptance, particularly when addressing mental health issues and integrating contemporary diagnostic and surgical advancements. Some within the medical community consider that the risks posed by Ayuverda outweigh any potential benefit it may give. Nonetheless, Ayuverda has its supporters. 

Are there any known risks or side effects to Ayurveda? 

While Ayurveda offers potential health benefits, it’s important to be aware of possible risks and side effects. Some Ayurvedic products contain heavy metals like lead, mercury, and arsenic, which can be harmful if ingested in significant amounts. 

Additionally, there’s a risk of interactions between Ayurvedic herbs and conventional medications. Therefore, it’s crucial to consult healthcare professionals before starting any Ayurvedic treatments and to choose products from reputable sources to minimise risks.

Naturopathy

Originating in the 19th century, Naturopathy combines a range of therapies including herbal medicine, nutrition, lifestyle counselling, massage, and hydrotherapy, among others. The philosophy of naturopathy is rooted in the healing power of nature and the belief that one can achieve optimal health by restoring the body’s natural balance.

Naturopathy focuses on natural and whole-body approaches to health, which aims to reduce  side effects. Issues might arise from improper use of herbal supplements, potential interactions with other medications, or opting for naturopathic methods over conventional treatments without adequate advice. It’s essential to consult a healthcare provider before beginning any new naturopathic regimen, particularly for individuals with existing health concerns or those on medication. For a comprehensive understanding, seeking advice from reputable health sources or professionals is advisable

The profession itself is substantial, with over 4,000 practitioners as of 2017, a figure expected to increase in the coming years. These practitioners commonly employ modalities such as nutritional medicine, herbal medicine, homoeopathy, and massage therapies in their private clinical practices. Despite this, the field faces challenges regarding integration with mainstream healthcare, partly due to the self-regulated nature of the profession in Australia and the need for more cohesive representation.

Practitioners of naturopathy, known as naturopaths, often consider the physical, mental, emotional, and environmental factors affecting an individual’s health. Treatment plans are personalised and focus on prevention and the use of natural therapies to address the root cause of illness.

Currently, the strongest evidence in support of naturopathy relates to the treatment of bronchial asthma, when used in combination with yoga. 

It is important to know that the proliferation of naturopathy faces challenges like the absence of appropriate regulatory bodies, uniformity in practice, adequate government support, and research. Naturopathy does not have widespread support in the medical community, and is a controversial form of treatment.

The studies surrounding naturopathy have limitations, including small sample sizes and lack of rigorous methodology, underscoring the need for more high-quality research to conclusively determine the effectiveness of naturopathic medicine in treating conditions. While naturopathy seeks to promote health and well-being, potential side effects depend on the individual treatments used. For example, dietary changes and supplements could lead to digestive upsets or allergic reactions in some.

Herbal Medicine

Herbal medicine, also known as phytotherapy, is a form of alternative medicine that utilises plants and plant extracts to treat and prevent illness. It is one of the oldest and most widely used forms of healthcare in the world, with roots tracing back to ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks. Herbal medicine operates on the principle that plants contain natural substances that can promote health, restore balance, and prevent disease.

The practice involves using whole plants, leaves, roots, seeds, berries, and flowers to create remedies. These can be prepared in various forms, including teas, tinctures, capsules, powders, and topical ointments. Herbalists, practitioners of herbal medicine, often take a holistic approach, considering the physical, emotional, and environmental aspects of an individual’s condition when prescribing herbal treatments.

The prevalence and factors influencing the use of herbal medicines has been increasing, reflecting their significant role in complementary and alternative health practices worldwide. Herbal medicine is used to treat a wide range of conditions, from common ailments like colds and flu to chronic diseases such as arthritis, diabetes, and depression. It can also support overall well-being and prevent illness by strengthening the immune system and improving bodily functions.

It’s important for individuals considering herbal remedies to consult with healthcare professionals, as some herbs can interact with prescription medications or may not be suitable for everyone. Please understand that there are also common risks. Common side effects of herbal medicines include allergic reactions, digestive issues, and interactions with conventional medications. Certain herbs can lead to side effects such as nausea, vomiting, headache, and dizziness.

However, the complexity of herbal medicines, which contain mixtures of organic chemicals, poses challenges in standardising products to ensure consistent levels of active ingredients. This variability can affect both the safety and efficacy of herbal products. Many herbal products are subjected to limited regulation and oversight, which means that their safety and efficacy might not be well established through rigorous clinical trials. Dangerous and lethal side effects, including direct toxic effects, allergic reactions, effects from contaminants, and interactions with drugs and other herbs, have been reported. The level of acceptance of various herbs in the medical community varies, and you should ensure that you consult an appropriately qualified health practitioner before commencing the use of herbal medicines.

Medicinal Cannabis

Medical cannabis has been considered to have potential as an alternative treatment for several decades. Its components are considered to treat symptoms of various medical conditions. The two most studied components are THC (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol). THC is known for its psychoactive effects, while CBD is noted for its potential in easing symptoms without causing a high.

Medical cannabis is used in a variety of medical conditions, including chronic pain, nausea associated with chemotherapy, multiple sclerosis spasticity symptoms, and certain types of epilepsy. Its use as a herbal medicine is supported by both historical references and contemporary research that explore its efficacy and mechanisms of action. However, for psychiatric disorders and other neurological conditions, the evidence is less consistent and often of lower quality, indicating a need for further research.

While the acceptance and regulation of medical cannabis vary globally, its increasing popularity highlights the growing recognition of the potential of natural plants in complementing traditional medical treatments. In Australia, the use of medical cannabis is strictly regulated, emphasising the importance of consulting medical professionals who are adequately trained in prescribing it correctly. Additionally, there are some risks associated with medical cannabis, including transient psychosis, particularly due to THC, and dizziness or light-headedness. CBD, another component, is non-intoxicating, with diarrhoea being its most common side effect.

The debate surrounding medical cannabis encompasses a range of conflicting views, rooted in the variability of evidence regarding its efficacy and safety for treating various conditions. This complexity is compounded by regulatory, ethical, and research-related challenges that have historically impeded the generation of robust, high-quality evidence.

Many studies on medical cannabis suffer from methodological limitations, including small sample sizes, lack of control groups, and reliance on self-reported measures of cannabis use and health outcomes. These issues compromise the reliability and generalised nature of findings.

Moreover, the wide variability in cannabis strains, potency, and modes of administration (e.g., smoked, ingested, vaporised) complicates the assessment of its therapeutic efficacy and safety. Standardisation of cannabis-based products for medical use is challenging but necessary for conducting rigorous clinical trials.

Evaluating Effectiveness and Risks Of Alternative Medicines

While some believe that alternative treatments or alternative medicines can provide for more holistic healing, we still need to better understand the effectiveness and risks of the medications and treatments. 

Whilst there’s an inclination towards alternative treatments for more holistic healing, the need to rigorously evaluate the effectiveness and risks of these therapies remains paramount.

The debate and research into the effectiveness of alternative medicine persist within scientific and medical circles. The success of such treatments varies significantly, influenced by the nature of the therapy, the medical condition in question, and individual patient responses. Clinical studies have indeed identified specific instances where alternative approaches, including some herbal remedies and acupuncture, demonstrate efficacy for particular ailments.

Nonetheless, the evidence supporting alternative therapies and medicines is not universally compelling, particularly when addressing a broad spectrum of major and minor health issues.

It is crucial to understand that while some alternative therapies may offer benefits, they are not considered a substitute for traditional medical treatments. Consulting with healthcare professionals before embarking on any alternative treatment is essential to ensure its suitability and safety.

Cost of alternative treatments in Australia

What Are The Costs Of Alternative Medicines In Australia?

Cost Of Acupuncture in Australia

On average, an initial acupuncture session can cost anywhere from AUD $80 to $120, with follow-up sessions typically ranging from AUD $60 to $100. Some practitioners may offer packages or reduced rates for multiple sessions purchased in advance.

Several things to consider when looking into the cost of acupuncture in Australia include:

  • Qualifications
  • Initial Consultation
  • Location
  • Type of Acupuncture
  • Session Length
  • Treatment Frequency

Cost Of Ayurveda in Australia

On average, an initial consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner can range from AUD $80 to $150, while follow-up consultations may cost between AUD $60 and $100. Treatments such as massage, dietary advice, herbal supplements, and detoxification therapies can vary in price, potentially adding to the overall cost.

When considering the cost of Ayurveda in Australia, keep in mind the following:

  • Practitioner Qualifications
  • Type of Treatment
  • Treatment Duration and Frequency
  • Herbal Supplements
  • Consultation Length

Cost of Naturopathy in Australia

The cost of naturopathy in Australia can vary significantly depending on a variety of factors, including the practitioner’s experience, location, and the specific treatments or services provided. 

  • Initial Consultation
    The first visit to a naturopath is typically more comprehensive and can last between 1 to 1.5 hours. The cost for an initial consultation can range from AUD $100 to $250.
  • Follow-up Consultations
    These are usually shorter, ranging from 30 minutes to an hour, with costs between AUD $50 to $150.
  • Treatment Costs
    Additional costs may arise for any prescribed treatments, such as herbal medicines, supplements, or specific dietary recommendations. These can vary widely in price depending on the nature and duration of the treatment.

It’s important to discuss all costs upfront with your naturopath and to consider the potential long-term investment in any prescribed supplements or ongoing treatments.

Cost of Herbal Medicine In Australia

The cost of herbal medicine in Australia can vary widely based on several factors, including the type of herbs, the form in which they are provided (e.g., teas, tinctures, capsules), the practitioner’s fees, and whether the treatment is part of a consultation with a herbalist or naturopath. Here’s a brief overview of what to consider:

  • Consultation Fees
    Initial consultations with a herbalist or naturopath can range from AUD $80 to $200, depending on the practitioner’s experience and location. Follow-up consultations are generally less expensive, ranging from AUD $60 to $150.
  • Cost of Herbs
    The price for herbal medicines themselves can vary from AUD $20 to $100 or more per month, depending on the specific herbs and the quantity required. Custom herbal formulas are typically more expensive than pre-made or over-the-counter herbal products.
  • Type of Preparation
    The form of the herbal medicine (e.g., liquid, capsule, powder) can affect the cost. Custom tinctures and blends may be more costly than standard preparations.
  • Quality of Herbs
    The quality and source of the herbs (organic, wildcrafted, standard) can influence the price. High-quality, organic herbs are usually more expensive but are often sought after for their purity and potency.

Cost of Medical Cannabis In Australia

When determining the cost of medical marijuana or medical cannabis in Australia, it is a little bit tricky to put an average number due to these factors: 

  • Product Type and Form: Different forms of medical cannabis (e.g., oils, tinctures, capsules, dried flower) have different prices. Oils and tinctures may be more expensive than dried flower, for instance.
  • Dosage and Frequency: The amount and frequency of medical cannabis prescribed can significantly affect the overall cost. Higher doses or more frequent usage will lead to higher expenses.

On average, patients might expect to pay anywhere from AUD $50 to $300 per month for medical cannabis products, though costs can exceed this range in cases requiring higher doses. Some key considerations include:

  • Consultation Fees
    Initial consultations with a healthcare provider to obtain a prescription usually cost between AUD $49 and $150, with follow-up consultations generally slightly lower in price.
  • Prescription Costs
    The cost of the cannabis products themselves, as mentioned, varies widely based on the treatment specifics.
  • Insurance Coverage
    Currently, many Australian private health insurance plans do not cover medical cannabis, meaning patients must bear the full cost out-of-pocket. However, some patients might be eligible for subsidies or financial assistance programs offered by certain states or the product suppliers.
  • Legal Prescriptions
    Ensure you’re obtaining medical cannabis through a legal prescription from a doctor who is authorised to prescribe it under Australian law. This ensures you’re getting a medicine that has been prescribed for your specific situation.

Growing Demand In CAMs Despite Inconclusive Evidence

The shift towards Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAMs) in Australia highlights a broader interest in integrating holistic health approaches alongside conventional medical treatments. With an annual expenditure of around $3.5 billion, Australians are exploring a variety of CAM practices, from acupuncture to Ayurveda, seeking more natural, personalised ways to maintain health and wellbeing. 

Despite their popularity and potential benefits, it’s vital to approach CAMs with caution due to the lack of conclusive evidence for many practices and the potential for interactions with conventional treatments. Always consulting with healthcare professionals before embarking on any new treatment plan is essential for ensuring safety and efficacy.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Written by

Priyom holds a Ph.D. in Plant Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Madras, India. She is an active researcher and an experienced science writer. Priyom has also co-authored several original research articles that have been published in reputed peer-reviewed journals. She is also an avid reader and an amateur photographer.

Latest News

Obesity rates in Australia
IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) vs ulcerative collitis vs Crohn's disease (ir ritable bowel disease)
Understanding cachexia
Irritable bowel syndrome symptoms & treatments

Suggested Reading

Obesity rates in Australia
IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) vs ulcerative collitis vs Crohn's disease (ir ritable bowel disease)